John Morley.

Critical miscellanies (Volume 3) online

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minds what is after all the greatest lesson of history,
namely, the fact of its oneness ; of the interdependence
of all the elements that have in the course of long ages
made the European of to-day what we see him to be.
It is no doubt necessary for clear and definite com-
prehension to isolate your phenomenon, and to follow
the stream of our own history separately. But that
cannot be enough. We must also see that this stream
is the effluent of a far broader and mightier flood —
whose springs and sources and great tributaries lay
higher up in the history of mankind.

' We are learning,' says Mr. Freeman, whose little
book on the Unity of History I cannot be wrong in
warmly recommending even to the busiest among
you, ' that European history, from its first glimmer-
ings to our own day, is one unbroken drama, no part
of which can be rightly understood without reference
to the other parts which come before and after it.
We are learning that of this great drama Rome is the
centre, the point to which all roads lead and from
which all roads lead no less. The world of independent
Greece stands on one side of it ; the world of modern
Europe stands on another. But the history alike of
the great centre itself, and of its satellites on either
side, can never be fully grasped except from a point
of view wide enough to take in the whole group, and


to mark the relations of each of its members to the
centre and to one another.'

Now the counsel which our learned historian thus
urges upon the scholar and the leisured student,
equally represents the point of view which is proper
for the more numerous classes of whom we are think-
ing to-night. The scale will have to be reduced ; all
save the very broadest aspects of things will have to
be left out; none save the highest ranges and the
streams of most copious volume will find a place in
that map. ' Small as is the scale and many as are its
omissions, yet if a man has intelligently followed the
very shortest course of universal history, it will be
the fault of his teacher if he has not acquired an
impressive conception, which will never be effaced, of
the destinies of man upon the earth ; of the mighty
confluence of forces working on from age to age,
which have their meeting in every one of us here to-
night ; of the order in which each state of society has
followed its foregoer, according to great and changeless
laws ' embracing all things and all times ; ' of the
thousand faithful hands that have one after another,
each in their several degrees, orders, and capacities,
trimmed the silver lamp of knowledge and kept
its sacred flame bright from generation to gener-
ation and age to age, now in one land and now
in another, from its early spark among far-off
dim Chaldeans down to Goethe and Faraday and
Darwin and all the other good workers of our own


The shortest course of universal history will let
liiin see how he owes to the Greek civilisation, on
the shores of the Mediterranean two thousand years
back, a debt extending from the architectural forms
of this very Town Hall to some of the most systematic
operations of his own mind ; will let him see the
forum of Eome, its roads and its gates —

What conflux issuing forth or entering in,
Prajtors, Proconsuls to their provinces
Hasting or on return, in robes of state —

all busily welding an empire together in a marvellous
framework of citizenship, manners, and laws, that
laid assured foundations for a still higher civilisation
that was to come after. He will learn how when
the Eoman Empire declined, then at Damascus and
Bagdad and Seville the Mahometan conquerors took
up the torch of science and learning, and handed it
on to western Europe when the new generations were
ready. He will learn how in the meantime, during
ages which we both wrongly and ungratefully call
dark, from Rome again, that other great organisation,
the mediaeval Church, had arisen, which amid many
imperfections and some crimes did a work that no
glory of physical science can equal, and no instrument
of physical science can compass, in purifying men's
appetites, in setting discipline and direction on their
lives, and in offering to humanity new types of moral
obligation and fairer ideals of saintly perfection,
whose light still shines like a star to guide our own
poor voyages. It is only by this contemplation of


the life of our race as a whole that men see the
beginnings and the ends of things ; learn not to l)e
near-sighted in history, but to look before and after ;
see their own part and lot in the rising up and going
down of empii-es and faiths since first recorded time
began ; and what I am contending for is that even if
you can take your young men and women no farther
than the mere vestibule of this ancient and ever
venerable Temjjlc of many marvels, you will have
opened to them the way to a kind of knowledge that
not only enlightens the understanding, but enriches
the character — which is a higher thing than mere
intellect — and makes it constantly alive with the
spirit of beneficence.

I know it is said that such a view of collective
history is true, but that you will never get plain
people to respond to it ; it is a thing for intellectual
dilettanti and moralising virtuobi. Well, we do not
know, because we have never yet honestly tried, what
the commonest people will or will not respond to.
When Sir Richard Wallace's pictures were being
exhibited at Bethnal Green, after people had said
that the workers had no souls for art and would not
appreciate its treasures, a story is told of a female
in very poor clothes gazing intently at a picture of
the Infant Jesus in the arms of his Mother, and then
exclaiming, ' iriio would not try to he a good woman, who
had such a child as that?' We have never yet, I say,
tried the height and pitch to which our people arc
capable of rising.


I have thought it well to take this opportunity
of saying a word for history, because I cannot help
thinking that one of the most narrow, and what will
eventually be one of the most impoverishing, char-
acteristics of our day is the excessive supremacy
claimed for physical science. This is partly due, no
doubt, to a most wholesome reaction against the
excessive supremacy that has hitherto been claimed
for literature, and held by literature, in our schools
and universities. At the same time, it is well to
remember that the historic sciences are making strides
not unworthy of being compared with those of the
physical sciences, and not only is there room for both,
but any system is radically wrong which excludes or
depresses either to the advantage of the other.^

And now there is another idea which I should like
to throw out, if you will not think it too tedious and
too special. It is an old saying that, after all, the
great end and aim of the British Constitution is to
get twelve honest men into a box. That is really a
very sensible way of putting the theory, that the first

1 A very eminent physicist writes to me on this passage : ' I
cannot help smiling when I think of the place of physical
science in the endowed schools,' etc. My reference was to the
great prevalence of such assertions as that human progi-ess
depends upon increase of our knowledge of the conditions of
material phenomena (Dr. Draper, for instance, lays this down
as a fundamental axiom of history) : as if moral advance, the
progressive elevation of types of character and ethical ideals
were not at least an equally important cause of improvement in
civilisation. The type of Saint Vincent de Paul is })laiidy as
indispensable to progi'ess as the tyjie of Newton.


end of government is to give security to life and
property, and to make people keep their contracts.
But with this view it is not only important that you
should get twelve honest men into a box : the twelve
honest men must have in their heads some notions
as to what constitutes Evidence. Now it is surely a
striking thing that while we are so careful to teach
physical science and literature ; while men want to
be endowed in order to have leisure to explore our
spinal cords, and to observe the locomotor system of
Medusfe — and I have no objection against those who
urge on all these studies — yet there is no systematic
teaching, very often no teaching at all, in the prin-
ciples of Evidence and Keasoning, even for the bulk
of those who would be very much offended if we were
to say that they are not educated. Of course I use
the term evidence in a wider sense than the testimony
in crimes and contracts, and the other business of
courts of law. Questions of evidence are rising at
every hour of the day. As Bentham says, it is a
question of evidence with the cook whether the joint
of meat is roasted enough. It has been excellently
said that the principal and most characteristic difier-
ence between one human intellect and another con-
sists in their ability to judge correctly of evidence.
Most of us, Mr. Mill says, are very unsafe hands at
estimating evidence, if appeal cannot be made to
actual eyesight. Indeed, if we think of some of the
tales that have been lately diverting the British
Association, we might perhaps go farther, and describe


many of us as very bad hands at estimating evidence,
even where appeal can be made to actual eyesight.
Eyesight, in fact, is the least part of the matter. The
senses are as often the tools as the guides of reason.
One of the longest chapters in the history of vulgar
error would contain the cases in which the eyes have
only seen what old prepossessions inspired them to
see, and were blind to all that would have been fatal
to the prepossessions. ' It is beyond all question or
dispute,' says Voltaire, ' that magic words and cere-
monies are quite capable of most effectually destroying
a whole flock of sheep, if the words be accompanied
by a sufficient quantity of arsenic' Sorcery has no
doubt been exploded — at least we assume that it has
— but the temper that made men attribute all the
efficacy to the magic words, and entirely overlook the
arsenic, still prevails in a great host of moral and
political afi'airs, into which it is not convenient to
enter here. The stability of a government, for instance,
is constantly set down to some ornamental part of it,
when in fact the ornamental part has no more to do
with stability than the incantations of the soothsayer.

You have heard, again, that for many generations
the people of the Isle of St. Kilda believed that the
arrival of a ship in the harbour inflicted on the
islanders epidemic colds in the head, and many
ingenious reasons were from time to time devised by
clever men why the ship should cause colds among
the population. At last it occurred to somebody that
the ship might not be the cause of the colds, but that


18 ON rorULAli CULTUliK.

both might be the common effects of some other cause,
and it was then remembered that a ship could only
enter the harbour when there was a strong north-cast
wind blowing.

However faithfid the observation, as soon as ever
a man uses words he may begin at that moment to
go wrong. ' A village apothecary,' it has been said,
'and if possible in a still greater degree, an experi-
enced nurse, is seldom able to describe the plainest
case without employing a phraseology of which every
word is a theory ; the simplest narrative of the most
illiterate observer involves more or less of hypothesis;'
— yet both by the observer himself and by most of
those Avho listen to him, each of these conjectural
assumptions is treated as respectfully as if it were an
established axiom. We are supposed to deny the
possibility of a circumstance, when in truth we only
deny the evidence alleged for it. We allow the
excellence of reasoning from certain data to captivate
our belief in the truth of the data themselves, even
when they are unproved and unprovable. There is
no end, in short, of the ways in which men habitually
go wrong in their reasoning, tacit or expressed. The
greatest boon that any benefactor could confer on the
human race would be to teach men — and especially
women — to quantify their propositions. It sometimes
seems as if Swift were right when he said that Man-
kind were just as 'fit for flying as for thinking.

Now it is quite true that mother-wit and the
common experiences of life do often furnish people


with a sort of shrewd and sound judgment that carries
them very creditably through the world. They come
to good conclusions, though perhaps they would give
bad reasons for them, if they were forced to find their
reasons. But you cannot count upon mother-Avit in
everybody; perhaps not even in a majority. And
then as for the experience of life, — there are a great
many questions, and those of the deepest ultimate
importance to mankind, in which the ordinary ex-
perience of life sheds no light, until it has been inter-
rogated and interpreted by men with trained minds.
' It is far easier,' as has been said, ' to acquire facts
than to judge what they prove.' What is done in
our systems of training to teach people how to judge
what facts prove 1 There is Mathematics, no doubt ;
anybody who has done even no more than the first
liook of Euclid's geometry, ought to have got into his
head the notion of a demonstration, of the rigorously
close connection between a conclusion and its pre-
misses, of the necessity of being able to show how each
link in the chain comes to be where it is, and that it
has a right to be there. This, however, is a long
way from the facts of real life, and a man might well
be a great geometer, and still be a thoroughly bad
reasoner in practical questions.

Again, in other of your classes, in Chemistry, in
Astronomy, in Natural History, besides acquiring
groups of facts, the student has a glimpse of the
method by which they were discovered, of the type
of inference to which the discovery conforms, so that


the discovery of a now comet, the detection of a
new species, the invention of a new chemical com-
pound, each becomes a lesson of the most beautiful
and impressive kind in the art of reasoning. And it
would be superfluous and impertinent for me here to
point out how valuable such lessons are in the way of
mental discipline, apart from the fruit they bear in
other ways. But here again the relation to the judg-
ments we have to form in the moral, political, prac-
tical sphere, is too remote and too indirect. The
judgments, in this region, of the most brilliant and
successful explorers in physical science, seem to be
exactly as liable to every kind of fallacy as those of
other people. The application of scientific method
and conception to society is yet in its infancy, and the
Novum Organum or the Principia of moral and social
phenomena will perhaps not be wholly disclosed to
any of us now alive. In any case it is clear that for
the purposes of such an institution as this, if the rules
of evidence and proof and all the other safeguards
for making your propositions true and relevant, are
to be taught at all, they must be taught not only in
an elementary form, but with illustrations that shall
convey their own direct reference and application to
practical life. If everybody could find time to master
Mill's Logic or so instructive and interesting a book
as Professor Jevons's Principles of Science, a certain
number at any rate of the bad mental habits of people
would be cured ; and for those of you here who have
leisure enough, and want to find a worthy keystone


of your culture, it would be hard to find a better
thing to do for the next six months than to work
through one or both of the books I have just named
—pen in hand. The ordinary text-books of formal
logic do not seem to meet the special aim which I am
now trying to impress as desirable — namely, the habit
of valuing, not merely speculative nor scientific truth,
but the truth of practical life ; a practising of the
intellect in forming and expressing the opinions
and judgments that form the staple of our daily dis-

It is now accepted that the most effective way of
learning a foreign language is to begin by reading
books written in it, or by conversing in it — and then
after a certain empirical familiarity with vocabulary
and construction has been acquired, one may proceed
to master the grammar. Just in the same way it
would seem to be the best plan to approach the art of
practical reasoning in concrete examples, in cases of
actual occurrence and living interest ; and then after
the processes of disentangling a complex group of
propositions, of dividing and shifting, of scenting a
fallacy, have all become familiar, it may be worth
while to find names for them all, and to set out rules
for reasoning rightly, just as in the former illustration
the rules of writing correctly follow a certain practice
rather than precede it.

Now it has long seemed to me that the best way
of teaching carefulness and precision in dealing with
propositions might be found through the medium of


the argumentation in the courts of justice. This is
reasoning in real matter. There is a famous book
well known to legal students — Smith's Leading Cases
— which contains a selection of important decisions,
and sets forth the grounds on which the courts arrived
at them. I have often thought that a dozen or a score
of cases might be collected from this book into a small
volume, that would make such a manual as no other
matter could, for opening plain men's eyes to the
logical pitfalls among which they go stumbling and
crashing, when they think they are disputing like
Socrates or reasoning like Newton. They would see
how a proposition or an expression that looks straight-
forward and unmistakable, is yet on examination found
to be capable of bearing several distinct interpreta-
tions and meaning several distinct things ; how the
same evidence may warrant different conclusions, and
what kinds of evidence carry with them what degrees
of validity : how certain sorts of facts can only be
proved in one way, and certain other sorts of facts in
some other way : how necessary it is, before you set
out, to know exactly what it is you intend to show,
or what it is you intend to dispute ; how there may
be many argumentative objections to a proposition,
yet the balance be in favour of its adoption. It is
from the generality of people having neglected to
practise the attention on these and the like matters,
that interest and prejudice find so ready an instru-
ment of sophistry in that very art of speech which
ought to be the organ of reason and truth. To bring


the matter to a point, then, I submit that it might be
worth while in this and all such institutions to have
a class for the study of Logic, Seasoning, Evidence,
and that such a class might well find its best material
in selections from Leading Cases, and from Bentham's
Rationale of Judicial Evidence, elucidated by those
special sections in Mill's Logic, or smaller manuals
such as those of Mr. Fowler, the Oxford Professor of
Logic, which treat of the department of Fallacies,
Perhaps Bentham's Booh of Fallacies is too political
for me to commend it to you here. But if there
happens to be any one in Birmingham who is fond of
meeting proposed changes by saying that they are
Utopian ; that they are good in theory, but bad in
practice ; that they are too good to be realised, and
so forth, then I can promise him that he will in that
book hear of something very much to his advantage.^
An incidental advantage — which is worth mention-
ing — of making legal instances the medium of instruc-
tion in practical logic, would be that people would —

i This suggestion has fortunately found favour in a quarter
where shrewd and critical common sense is never wanting. The
Economist (Oct. 14) writes : — 'Such a text-book commented on
to a class by a man trained to estimate the value of evidence,
would form a most valuable study, and not, we should imagine,
at all less fascinating than valuable. Of course the class sug-
gested would not be a class in English law, but in the principles
on which evidence should be estimated, and the special errors
to which, in common life, average minds are most liable. We
ri'gard tliis suggestion as a most useful one, and as one whicli
would not only greatly contribute to the educational worth of
an institute for adults, but also to its popularity.'


not learn law, of course, in the present state of our
system, but they would have their attention called in
a direct and business-like way to the lawyer's point
of view, and those features of procedure in which
every man and woman in the land has so immediate
an interest. Perhaps if people interested themselves
more seriously than is implied by reading famous
cases in the newspapers, we should get rid, for one
thing, of the rule which makes the accused person in
a criminal case incompetent to testify ; and, for
another, of that infamous license of cross-examination
to credit, which is not only barbarous to those who
have to submit to it, but leads to constant miscarriage
of justice in the case of those who, rather than submit
to it, Avill suffer wrong.

It will be said, I daresay, that overmuch scruple
about our propositions and the evidence for them will
reduce men, especially the young, to the intellectual
condition of the great philosopher, Marphurius, in
Moli^re's comedy. Marphurius rebukes Sganarelle
for saying he had come into the room ; — ' What you
should say is, that it seems I am come into the room.'
Instead of the downright affirmations and burly nega-
tions so becoming to Britons, he would bring down
all our propositions to the attenuation of a possibility
or a perhaps. We need not fear such an end. The
exigencies of practical affairs will not allow this end-
less balancing. They are always driving men to the
other extreme, making us like the new judge, who
first heard the counsel on one side and made up


his mind on the merits of the case, until the turn of
the opposing counsel came, and then the new counsel
filled the judge with so many doubts and perplexities,
that he suddenly vowed that nothing would induce
him to pay any heed to evidence again as long as he

I do not doubt that I shall be blamed in what I
have said about French, and about history, for
encouraging a spirit of superficiality, and of content-
ment with worthless smatterings of things. To this
I should answer that, as Archbishop Whately pointed
out long ago, it is a fallacy to mistake general truths
for superficial truths, or a knowledge of the leading
propositions of a subject for a superficial knowledge.
'To have a general knowledge of a subject is to know
only its leading truths, but to know these thoroughly,
so as to have a true conception of the subject in its
great features ' (Mill). And I need not point out
that instruction may be of the most general kind, and
still possess that most impoi'tant quality of all in-
struction — namely, being methodical.

I think popular instruction has been made much
more repulsive than it need have been, and more
repulsive than it ought to have been, because those
who have had the control of the movement for the
last fifty years, have been too anxious to make the
type of popular instruction conform to the type of
academic instruction proper to learned men. The
principles of instruction have been too rigorously


ascetic and puritanical, and instead of making the
access to knowledge as easy as possible, we have
delighted in forcing every pilgrim to make his journey
to the shrine of the Muses with a hair-shirt on his
back and peas in his shoes. Nobody would say that
Macaulay had a superficial knowledge of the things
best worth knowing in ancient literature, yet we have
his own confession that when he became a busy man
— as you are all busy — then he read his classics, not
like a collegian, but like a man of the world ; if he
did not know a word, he passed it over, and if a
passage refused to give up its meaning at the second
reading, then he let it alone. Now the aims of
academic education and those of popular education
are — it is obvious if you come to think of it— quite
different. The end of the one is rather to increase

Online LibraryJohn MorleyCritical miscellanies (Volume 3) → online text (page 2 of 25)